Derek Wall interviews Mark Bergfeld NUS presidential candidate
The eruption of student protests against the Con Dem government's cuts, took virtually all of us by surprise, when late last year young people took to the streets to challenge university fees and the removal of the EMA. The force of such protest from the grassroots has been challenging for the National Union of Students. Aaron Porter, the President of the NUS, condemned militant protest and as a result was often jeered by students at events. He recently withdrew from the 2011 contest for the post.
The broad left including members of the Labour Party, SWP and Greens are running a slate of candidates for the National Union of Students. Recently I caught up with my Mark Bergfeld, their candidate to replace Porter.
I asked Mark, who has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a Masters in Sociology from the University of Essex, how he first became politically active.
'I went to my first demonstration when the G7 came to Cologne, Germany in June 1999. A few months later I saw pictures of Seattle on the tv screen. I was 12 years old at the time and just picked up every single left-wing paper there was. Then I started reading Chomsky in the aftermath of 9/11 and started organizing school students to go to anti-fascist demonstrations in my city back in Germany.
My grandfather who was Greek only talked about politics with me and had wanted to travel from Greece to the Spanish Civil War when he had been eleven years old. I wanted to go to all the anti-capitalist demonstrations around the world. None of them ever became reality.
When I came to the UK I started getting involved with Unite Against Fascism. One of the first things I ever did here was storm the Oxford Chamber when Nick Griffin was invited to speak. That kick-started my real phase of activism.'
Mark is already an elected member of the NUS executive, I asked him to tell me more about the slate of candidates of which he is a part:
'Michael Chessum is the co-founder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and a Sabbatical Officer at UCL; Ruby Hirsch has not only led a walk-out of more than 500 students at her college but also one of the only school occupations; Sean Rillo Raczka sits on the NUS NEC with me and is one of the activists on the EAN steering committee; Joana Pinto is one of the co-founders of the NCAFC and a student at SOAS; Aaron Kiely is a member of the Student Broad Left and has done absolute fabulous anti-fascist work with LMHR and UAF.'
There is a real belief that the NUS produces Labour Party centre right career politicians, the disgraced Phil Woolas and Jack Straw are former NUS Presidents, I asked Mark whether it was possible for him to break the pattern and win at the NUS conference to be held in April in Newcastle, 'Due to the delegate entitlements and the way NUS is structured it is very difficult for any kind of left-wing candidate to win the position of President.
This year we have a real chance of challenging the current leadership which has given up the fight a long time ago. . But we’ll fight like we’ll win. And perhaps we’ll succeed.'
Bergfeld and other broad left candidates, have had won minor victory already, they have done what many of on the left of Britain have failed to do and unite as socialists, I asked Mark about the value of bringing activists from Labour to the Greens together, He noted 'If we want to beat the Tories we will have to be united. This is not for our own sake or for opportunistic reasons but for the unity of the working class. We cannot allow to be divided when it comes to beating an austerity government.
Nevertheless, people and activists have the right to be part of different organizations, networks and groups. There is no contradiction in that. Unity is always achieved in practice, not on paper. '
The left in the NUS have a manifesto based on fighting the cuts and building a wider struggle against the coalition government, '
There are five general points in the manifesto: Take on the Tories – build a mass movement against fees, cuts and austerity; March, strike, occupy – civil disobedience overturned the poll tax and CPE; Students and workers unite – striking together is our most powerful weapon;
Don’t let Cameron divide us – stand united against bigotry and fascism; International solidarity – support the Arab revolutions'
Mark's research as a masters student looked at the climate justice movement, a member of the SWP, climate change politics is central to his thinking,
'Since mid-2009 – in the run-up to the COP-15 in Copenhagen – I had been researching on climate justice and the re-orientation that a lot of anti-capitalist activists were making. I attended the import-version of climate camp in Hamburg, Germany and started reading about climate struggles in the Global South.
Later in December 2009, I went to Copenhagen for two weeks. It was an experience I won’t forget despite the massive defeat. Thus I continued attending CJN and CJA meetings across Europe for my research.
What I am particularly interested in is how we can build a movement against neo-liberalism and climate change that involves trade unions. I analysed what ideas and theoretical underpinning a lot of the activists held, and whether those ideas advanced the movement or held it back.'
There is a feeling that given that the student protest emerged outside the NUS, I put this to Mark,
NUS remains very relevant. The biggest demonstration so far was November 10 when NUS/UCU called and fully mobilized for the demonstration. When the Union pours its resources into something it can mobilize bigger numbers than the left could at any given point.
That’s why we need to continue to fight within NUS. Networks such as the Education Activist Network need to work with and against the NUS. We can’t let our NUS off the hook but make sure that it defends the interests of students and the wider trade union movement.
Like many of us Mark has been inspired by the revolts in Arab countries against neo-liberalism, he noted: The revolutions in the Arab world are inspiration to millions of people around the globe. They show that we can defeat governments despite repression. They also show how we can move from people’s power to workers’ power, and translate political demands into economic ones and vice versa.
I also suggested to him that now fees legislation had been passed at Westminister, it was difficult to see how the student movement could advance,
'The students’ movement has inspired millions of working class people to defy the ConDem government. It succeeded to create a political crisis six months into the government’s term of office. And even though the vote to treble tuition fees passed through parliament, the taste of resistance has not been lost. The lecturers’ strike on March 24 and our day of rage on March 26 could be a launchpad for co-ordinated strike action in which students could play a vital role.
We need to continue to argue: What parliament can do, the streets can undo! The CPE laws in France were defeated after mass protests and university occupations, and the Poll Tax was defeated after it had been implemented. There is no reason why we cannot defeat the Tories and reverse the fees rise. But we need to emphasise that no one group can beat the Tories alone. We need to fight together if we are to win'
The united left slate for NUS Conference 2011 include:
President: Mark Bergfeld
Vice President Higher Education: Michael Chessum
Vice President Union Development: Joana Oliveria Pinto
Vice President Welfare: Sean Rillo Raczka
Vice President Society & Citizenship: Aaron Kiely
Vice President Further Education: Ruby Hirsch
If you would like to support the left slate for NUS Conference please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark's manifesto and campaign blog can be found at http://markbergfeld.wordpress.com/manifesto/